Chapter Two: SE Asia

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The plane landed in Denpasar and no sooner had I reached the door of the plane then I had plenty of olfactory evidence of such. The air was warm, humid, and the slightest hint of incense, explained by a small series of statues (a shrine, I suppose) I walked by on my way through. I waited for my backpack to come around on the conveyor and when it did, two airport officials came up to check that I had taken a bag that belonged to me. Then they walked me with my bags to a customs officer where I was zipped through quite quickly. They picked up my bags and followed me to the money change, and it was here I realized they weren’t airport security. I laughed to myself that I had been scammed right off the boat so I gave them a tip (definitely NOT the amount they suggested) and went on my way. Aside from this, customs was pretty straightforward, certainly no need to worry about proving a date and means of departure. My hotel was supposed to send someone to collect me but that didn’t happen and I wound up taking a taxi. Apparently, STA Travel didn’t bother to forward the details of my flight to them. Good old travel agents. And then I was there, past bikes and buildings, all low-rise and with Asian roofing, at Bakung Sari hotel.

The hotel is definitely not what I had in mind (thanks again, STA Travel). It’s nice enough, but pricey compared to what else is around, a fair walk from the main area, and full of old people and couples, not much on the single traveler scene. So, after settling in and hiding my various valuables in stashes around the room and in the lobby safe, I was walking the streets trying to find the beach and check out the place, armed only with my Lonely Planet map, which is a dubious proposition at best. I did find the beach in south Kuta to be pretty poor but you could see further along in Kuta, Legian, and Seminyak where the beach was nicer. Eventually, after a bunch of walking I was getting hungry and looking for somewhere to eat. I wound up chatting with and asking a local guy where exactly I was along the street since streets are just simply not labeled here. How a person would navigate themselves is beyond me but I digress. He was quite friendly as most Balinese people seem to be and pointed me along the way. We chatted some more and he offered to show me where one of his favourite places was. I decided to risk the journey as he seemed quite harmless, plus I didn’t have any valuables on me, so I gave it a whirl.

We drove around the nutty streets on his scooter and grabbed lunch and then went into Denpasar away from the tourists, I got myself a SIM card for my phone in Indonesia, a few power adapters from a big western-style mall, and spent a fairly aimless day all told. We swung by his place, which was nicer than I expected to be honest, and I met some of his friends who were pretty interesting and friendly too. We had some more Indonesian food and Jerry dropped me back at my hotel. The next day, we drove out to the temple of Tanah Lot, which was great. It’s pretty busy here in Kuta and it was nice to get out of the city, though the whole way along was strewn with small shops, statue makers, and so on, traffic was nice and light, and there still were rice paddies and beautiful scenery abound.

The temple itself was beautiful. Situated right on the ocean, it is a dramatic setting on an outcropping of rock. At the base of the rock, submerged when we arrived, is a holy place where, at low tide, the water receded just enough to allow a thin line of people to go and be blessed. We hung around the area, had lunch, and admired the temple as the tide dropped, and then went to have a closer look. I didn’t get blessed as I felt this wouldn’t really be respectful since I not only had no idea what was exactly going on but obviously I don’t share their religion. Still, it was interesting to observe and while doing so, a young boy got his photo taken with me. Jerry told me this is sort of a status symbol – having photos with westerners – when you’re young and in school. And, he didn’t have to say, before you’ve grown up and are quite tired of them.

On the way back, Jerry let me drive the bike a bit. It is a little hectic, I have to say, and I’d want more practice before attempting to drive in a city. We turned around in front of a rural school that was just letting out and the kids were all talking about seeing a ‘westerner’. I think Jerry was as amused as I was, to be honest as he would make a point of getting their attention. We passed still more of them cycling home and they too were talking and waving, so I got my camera out which prompted them to all but leap from their bikes cheering. They didn’t know it, but they made a great photo. We took a side road through a small town which was interesting, too – people working in fields, wandering around with baskets on their heads, and one older woman doing so without a shirt on. Back in town, Jerry dropped me off at the hotel and I was chatting with a man offering his driving services for the day (sometimes it’s fun just to chat with them, and I am looking at some way of getting around the island). As I was chatting, a lone English girl walked out of the hotel and smiled, thinking I was being harassed. She walked back again with a sprite in hand just as we were finishing up and I chatted a bit with her, too, being that she was the only other solo traveler I’d thus far encountered.

We were considering going out that night, though I fell asleep early, Jerry’s phone call woke me up and he was about 5 minutes from the hotel to hit the town. So Jerry and I went out to a club – the bike doesn’t fit three and Michelle didn’t reply to my text anyway – whose name I can’t recall and had a fun time. The drinks here are potent. I started with a beer and since everyone else was happy enough having cocktails, I took my chances with the ice and had a few as well. All I can say is that I had a few too many. I don’t know how much alcohol they put in one, and to be honest I doubt they know themselves, but they were strong and so I spent pretty much all of Wednesday (my third day in Bali) lazing around and reading. In fact, I left the room twice: once to meet Michelle for breakfast, and once to grab some sprite (no gingerale here) and snacks to try and keep down. I’m surprised I got that sick from it, to be honest.

I spent the next day wandering around and made it as far as Legian before doubling back on the beach. I was supposed to meet up with Michelle and Jerry that night but my phone went haywire and would only say ‘unknown recipient’ when I tried to SMS. I figured out the day after, when my phone still wasn’t working, that it was due to low credit – 300 Rp to be exact (this is equal to 3 cents). So I topped that up and got a hold of Jerry and Michelle – oh, strange coincidence, eh? – and met up with Jerry first. I thought he said something about getting out of Denpasar but instead we wound up going shopping for him. All day. Woo. I have never seen anyone shop more for less, and it’s not even that he’s shopping, per se, but rather loitering around various areas of interest for far too long. An electronics expo, several mobile phone stores, and then a clothing store. The only saving grace is these were local stores and not tourist ones so I got to see how things really work when you live here, or at least I think I did. I left him around 6 and met up with Michelle for dinner at 7, whereupon we agreed to hire a car and driver for the following day and go check out Gunung (Volcano) Batur. Then we had a few local beers and went and packed – she had to change rooms and I was going to grab a hotel in Ubud for a few nights.

The next day, Nyoman – a tour operator I’d haggled with on the street the day prior – picked me and my things up at my hotel at 10 AM sharp. For $15 we had him and his car at our disposal for nine hours, including fuel. We picked up Michelle at her hotel then drove up to Ubud where I moved to the Sadru House Hotel. The room was a pretty reasonably priced 70,000 Rp ($7/night) including breakfast. That sorted, we ventured north. Our guide stopped at Tanallalang for some incredible rice terraces. I now have no need to go to China. Well, okay, not really, but they were every bit as beautiful as anything I’ve ever imagined. A little further up the road, a temple tucked into the hillside and forest. In fact, I do believe it was a temple to water; the holy water here is said to purify and cleanse, and it runs off one mountain spring that they’ve tapped and made into umpteen layers of fountains and pools.

Finally, our intended destination for the day, the volcano of Gunung (volcano) Batur. From our vantage point, we had Batur on the horizon, the entire rim of the caldera, and on one part of that rim, Gunung Agung, the tallest mountain of Bali. It was a beautiful sight and well worth the trip up. We had a rather pricey lunch by Bali-standards but, again, worth it for the spectacular view of the caldera valley and the two volcanoes. The all you can eat buffet was less spectacular, but it definitely filled an empty spot or two in my Bali… err… belly. I thought we might as well stop at the base of the volcano for a look around and wound up arguing with Nyoman as a result – he obviously wanted to get us back quickly but we had plenty of time left on our nine hours and why not? Finally he gave in and took us to the bottom and a little village on the lake. I thought we’d get up to the recent lava flow but sadly not. Descending from the crater rim we went into deep cloud, and very soon, heavy, heavy rain. The amount of water I saw fall in this short span of time was more than I saw fall in my whole stay in Australia. But, owing to the inflation of the tires, we somehow floated our way back down to my hotel in Ubud where I parted ways with the now pouting Nyoman and Michelle and went to sleep.

My first full day in Ubud was pretty quiet. I wandered around the town for a very short while before the rain started in earnest and went back to the hotel to sit on my porch and read. It’s pretty consistent apparently, and petered out a little after three. I picked up a ticket to some Balinese dancing that night, and made my way to the temple where the show was held at about 7:00. The dance was a telling of the story of Ramayana, a rather complicated story of a prince and princess who are first banished and then the princess is preyed upon and kidnapped by a scheming god and then from another and then at last freed with some other gods’ intervention. It was interesting but, maybe due to the rather rhythmic chanting of all the men arranged in a circle around the main area, rather sleep-inducing as well. The second dance, of sorts, was really more of a “walking on hot coals” sort of affair. It seemed pretty hot as far as I was concerned, but he kept coming back and walking and kicking coals everywhere. I wanted to meet a few other backpackers, so I went down to Putra bar after the show and discovered not a soul to be found.

The next day, I did run into a backpacker – in fact, a backpacker I’d traveled with from Broome to Perth: Kenji. It is a bit of a surprise to say the least to be walking down the street and pass someone shouting “Ohhhhh!” as though a mortal wound had been dealt and staring directly at you. I mean, they try all sorts of tactics to get your attention here and get you talking. “Transport?” “informations?” “Hello, where you from?” “Hey, I remember I give you discount yesterday!” and so on. I’ve never had anyone just come up to me and cry out a half-grunt half-exclamation. I was intrigued and, I admit, didn’t recognize Kenji right away. Anyway, we chatted for a while and may again run across each other in Thailand. We said hello, goodbye, and see you later, then I took a walk into the monkey forest south of town and, by putting a banana peel on my shoulder, managed to get a monkey to climb up there while I took a self-portrait shot. It’s pretty cool to just walk around with monkeys scampering everywhere. They’re clever too, they’ll try to fish out anything from bags or investigate bulges in pockets. I saw one guy have his backpack unzipped. Clever!

I sat and watched a reggae cover band at Putra Bar later that evening and returned home to pack my bags. I was off to Lovina in the northern part of Bali the next day (parting ways with 220k Rp / $22), but we made two stops en route: the temple on the lake at Bedugul (Ulun Danu) and then Git Git falls further down the road. I was definitely excited to see the temple and was not disappointed upon my arrival. It is set on an immaculately landscapes grounds on the lakeside and the temple itself sits on small islands just off the shore, inaccessible but by boat. As I arrived a ceremony was just wrapping up, so the temple was swarming not with tourists but with locals in ceremonial dress. More and more of this in Bali as we draw closer to Nyepi. As always, the kids were excited to have their photos taken and it was really pleasant to mill about with everyone and observe.

The next stop was Gitgit, as foreshadowed, and while I wasn’t too interested in stopping here, it was on the way. I was pleasantly surprised to find a pristine waterfall, or rather, several of them, and some great swimming locales that I, unfortunately, wasn’t prepared for. I did run into a Canadian while near the base of one of the larger falls who was, however, and he asked me to take his photo jumping, which didn’t seem the best advised idea but hey, maybe I go home with an extra camera. Truth be told, I might’ve considered doing just that had I come equipped. Still, he almost slipped on a slippery rock face down into the water below and it probably wouldn’t have ended well for him, but thankfully he recovered. Then he crossed and jumped successfully from the other side. A few more photos further upstream at some twin falls and I was soon in Lovina, enjoying what was a beautiful drive down the mountain slopes to the north coast.

The next two days in Lovina were the first time I felt on vacation and not just backpacking or trekking. I sat by the pool as it was too hot and humid for anything else, went for a nice and cheap dinner, and met a couple Dutch girls I had a few drinks with. The town is very, very quiet which is also a relief, it’s obviously their low season, and very friendly. Even the tourists say hi to each other, there are so few here. I’ve made friends with a few other Dutch, German, and a Canadian and we all went for a pizza last night then some drinks on the beach where I tried Arak (tastes like tequila), played some cards and spent more time by the pool and exploring what little there is to explore in Lovina. At the moment, I’m sitting in the hotel restaurant, my first anti-malarial pill sitting uncomfortably in my stomach, the rain relenting slightly as the town prepares for the big burning festival tonight, where they light effigies of evil spirits to keep them off the island and then spend the next day completely motionless. Everything is closed and leaving home is not allowed, in the hopes that the spirits will bypass the island, thinking it empty. By the time this happens, I will be in Java, I’m on a bus in half an hour traveling to Gilimanuk for a ferry across, arriving eight hours (hopefully) later in Probolingo. Bali was fun, more to it than expected, and I could use more time here, but for now, there’s a whole other island and some 100 million people on the immediate horizon. See you there.

Bali Photos

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